Stephen Speicher contributes The Clicker, an opinion column on entertainment and technology:
These past few weeks I did the unthinkable -- I traveled through Europe without a laptop. Oh sure, to those Luddite readers among us (all two of you), this might not sound like an impressive feat. However, to me, traveling without a laptop is something akin to a diabetic traveling without insulin, one of those peanut-phobic people traveling without an EpiPen, or Paris Hilton traveling without her Valtrex Tinkerbell. In other words, it's a tall order. You see, when it comes to international travel, a laptop is often a little like an Army drill sergeant during boot camp; it is my mother, my father, my email, my Skype, my IM, my DVD player, my torrent client, my television, etc. Stated succinctly, it's my world. Ditching it wouldn't be easy. Much like an expedition to climb Everest, this endeavor required careful planning.
The first gut-wrenching decision was that all communication would be done via internet cafes and hotel business centers (note to self: change all passwords). It was a tough call, but, hey, it's called a vacation for a reason. Giving up email access to friends and colleagues was one thing. Giving up entertainment was something altogether different and NOT something I was prepared to do. I would need a steady stream of television and movie content, and I would need it to come in a small sturdy package. In short, I would need some sort of portable media player.
Truth be told, I was somewhat surprised at how easy the next decision was. As a tried and true Windows Media Center user, I've never really been drawn to the iPod. Mine is a world of DVR-MS, WMA, and WMV. There is no place for an iPod in my world -- or so I thought. Yet, when it was time to finally purchase a video-enabled media player, I evaluated the pros and cons of each and found myself gravitating to and eventually buying one of the newly released 5.5G iPods. Why? That's easy -- they're everywhere, and as I've maintained in the past, it's all about the ecosystem. I knew that if misfortune struck and an iPod accessory was needed, I would have no problem acquiring one. Apple's stores are world wide, and the seemingly-ubiquitous El Gigantens (Sweden's answer to Circuit City) blanketed the Scandinavian portion of my travels. Accessories would not be an issue.
Once the iPod was purchased, I never looked back. A copy of Nero's Recode 2 made filling the iPod with content ridiculously easy. Whether it was MCE-recorded shows or CSS-free DVDs, Nero made short work of it. If you're a Windows user looking for a nice, simple way to convert videos for use with your iPod, I can't recommend Nero highly enough. Before long I had packed my iPod with enough TV shows and movies to last the entire trip.
The next challenge would be earphones. While Apple's included earphones come with a heaping portion of cool, they also come with something else -- pain. Don't get me wrong -- for a quick little jaunt down the street, they're perfectly acceptable, but, for any more time than that, standard earbuds are the devil's instrument.
Here's where the good people at Ultimate Ears stepped in. A while back Ultimate Ears sent me a pair of their super.fi 5Pro headphones. The intent at the time (as it still is) was to compare a sampling of high-end ear monitors against active noise-cancelling technology for comfort, external noise reduction, and, of course, sound. Lacking some other samples from other companies, I placed the super.fi's on the shelf and waited. Boy was that a mistake. I broke them out for the trip and while by no means perfect (the bass is lacking and claims of noise blockage were overstated), the super.fi's are some of the most comfortable ear monitors I've tried; what's more, they sound great. Hours would pass and there was no need to remove the buds and gently massage my aching ears. It was a true joy. I honestly can't imagine ever going back to cheap buds.
The last piece of the puzzle would be the connection between the iPod and the hotel televisions. Here the story is not so great. Naturally I chose Apple's A/V expansion kit. Frankly, it seemed like a no-brainer and, in a matter of speaking, it was. For video the kit is, well, brain dead. It's awful with a capital A. I suppose the blame should fall, in part, upon me. I made the assumption Apple had placed at least some thought into this accessory. Apparently they did not. I had already come to grips with the lack of fast-forward and rewind while holding the unit. Necessity had forced my thumbs to quickly adapt to the ways of the click wheel. The problem? My thumbs don't stretch across the room. Worse yet -- if you do make the mistake of pressing the remote control's FF or RW buttons, you end up in no-man's land. It doesn't actually FF / RW your video, nor does it skip you to the next video. Instead, it backs you out to the My Video options. "Press play," you say. All of a sudden you're listening to your first music track. Seriously, Apple, what were you thinking with this one? It's so unlike you.
So, overall, how did it all work?
For the most part, the experiment was a success. The iPod was a joy to use. It traveled well and held more than enough content to last weeks. With that said, my bag was certainly a few accessories too light. Here's what I would add:
First and foremost, DAMN YOU SCART! Ahhh... I feel better now. It was a rookie mistake, but I forgot about that damnable SCART connector on European TVs. It wasn't a deal-breaker as some of the hotels had already upgraded to LCD screens which also sported RCA connections, but not all of them. A way to bridge the RCA-SCART gap would have been much appreciated.
Next, I would add a universal remote control and a list of programming codes. There were a couple times when the hotel's system just wouldn't let me select different inputs. Sometimes, if you've got a universal remote control, you can bypass this limitation.
Third -- I just needed more power. Far too much time was spent with me looking for juice like a junkie searching for my next hit. I'd roam around airports, train stations, and bus stops like a chicken at feeding time. My head was down and I was scanning the walls, posts, desks for anything that could feed me 220 volts of alternating current. In the future I'd certainly bring a gadget like Energizer's upcoming Energi To Go. (I contemplated Minty Boost but thought better of traveling with a device that looked like it could be part of a homemade bomb.)
Still, I don't regret leaving the laptop behind. Oh, the price you pay for television...
If you have an entertainment travel accessory that you just can't live without, drop me a line and let me know what it is. Until then I'll be the guy sitting here quietly wishing he had 10-foot thumbs.
If you have comments or suggestions for future columns, drop me a line at email@example.com.